Issue 6

WHAT DO OUR HUMAN RIGHTS AND BUSINESS HAVE IN COMMON? A MISSED OPPORTUNITY, THAT'S WHAT.

By Matt Tyrer, Development Officer, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO)

‘Human rights’ and ‘business’ are terms not often seen to have much in common.  In fact, when uttered in the same sentence it is most likely to be in a negative context, particularly in today’s climate where we are seeing financially driven decisions having quite devastating impact on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our society, and all in the name of ‘austerity’.

However, there is another significant issue, and a missed opportunity, that these two seemingly opposed areas share in common. One which, if addressed through education and life-long learning, could change the way we think about our work and support us to become stronger and more successful organisations.

Before arriving in the third sector some six years ago I had never considered working for a charity. I studied business and started my career in the private sector. I fell into the third sector almost by accident, but I realise now that everything I previously learned in business is of relevance and importance to my work today.

We need to shift public attitudes and change workplace cultures so that we in the third sector open ourselves up to a whole new pool of business orientated skills

However, too often I am given the impression that ‘business’ and ‘profit’ are seen as dirty words that shouldn’t be associated with charities and the third sector. I find this difficult to understand and often frustrating. There is nothing wrong with making profit – it’s how you get it and what you do with it that matters. However, on reflection I realise this attitude is hardly surprising, and need look no further than my own experience to see why.

Whilst I feel extremely fortunate that I received an excellent education, I feel that my business education was too narrowly focussed. Everything seemed geared around profit for personal gain. I never imagined an alternative career in which I could use my newly found skills and entrepreneurial enthusiasm in support of a wider social good. Had I not ‘fallen’ into the third sector I’m not sure I would have ever considered this.

I think we need to accept a new paradigm of what ‘business’ means in which the third sector is given a more equal footing, and I think this needs to be included within our education and life-long learning. We need to shift public attitudes and change workplace cultures so that we in the third sector open ourselves up to a whole new pool of business orientated skills, experience and enthusiasm, along with a wider cultural acceptance that it is a positive thing for ‘charities’ to look and act like businesses, seeking growth and making profit, if it helps us to solve the huge social problems we are here for.

The emerging ideology of social enterprise within the third sector is a welcome move in this direction and has an important part to play. I certainly hope that, if it hasn’t already, it is incorporated into our education and training of the next generation of business men and women so that, unlike me, they might consider it as a realistic career option from the outset. However, I still think we need a more fundamental change in our attitudes, both from within the third sector and across wider society.

The American social entrepreneur Dan Pallotta makes this argument very well in his talk to the 2013 TED conference titled ‘The way we think about charity is dead wrong’, which I recommend is worth a watch.

Similarly, I have also found that the term ‘human rights’ is too often discounted or misunderstood, even in the third sector.

I confess I had never really considered human rights prior to my current role. It has only been very recently that I’ve began to understand what human rights, and a rights based approach, actually means. But it’s opened my eyes to some fundamental principles which I now recognise underpin everything we do and are hardwired to the values we stand for, whether at an organisational level or as part of our own personal moral compass.

When I ask other people about why they do what they do, the responses I get also chime very strongly with the principles of human rights. Empowering people. Protecting people’s dignity. Supporting people to participate fully in life and flourish. Challenging discrimination. Holding those of us in positions of power and influence to account. Mediating in times of conflict to find balanced and proportionate solutions. Values such as these are the bedrock of a human rights based approach, and they are what we do, day-in-day out, in our work across both third and public sectors.

too often the people I speak with do not connect themselves, nor the work that they do, in this way, and instead see human rights as something that is distinct, abstract, legalistic and often controversial.

When I look at some of the key policy themes and challenges facing us today, such as preventative spending, asset based approaches, self-directed support and personalisation, welfare, universal benefits, the living wage, and working towards a new progressive economy, I see that our rights are central to them and have participative democracy and social responsibility running through them all.

Our aging population is a particular human rights issue, not least for organisations considering how to respond to a changing labour market and workforce demographic and all that this entails in terms of personnel management, flexible working arrangements, and supporting some of the most marginalised members of our society back into our workplaces. 

However, despite this, too often the people I speak with do not connect themselves, nor the work that they do, in this way, and instead see human rights as something that is distinct, abstract, legalistic and often controversial.

Again, on reflection I’m not particularly surprised by this and I think that there has been another missed opportunity within education to ensure we gain a much better awareness and understanding of internationally recognised human rights, and a much stronger sense of how a rights based approach can be embedded within, and work in support of rather than against, what we do.

By recognising the work we are doing in human rights terms it allows us to do two things. First it provides us with an extremely useful framework to recognise the work we do as rights based and ensure what we do stays true to these values and keeps people at the heart of it. Second it provides us with a whole raft of pretty substantial international, European and domestic instruments, law and political leverage to help strengthen our work, evidence our impact and bolster our arguments for change.

SCVO and Glasgow Caledonian University have developed a ground breaking Masters in Citizenship and Human Rights programme. This innovative partnership approach to life-long learning has resulted in a work based post-graduate degree programme that is designed to fit around a busy work life. Delivered mainly through distance and online learning you can now take part in high level academic learning around issues of human rights and then relate it to your day-to-day work in a way that you and your employer can directly benefit from, in practice.

Students currently studying on the programme from across the third and public sectors have already seen the positive impacts of this approach, citing increased confidence and ability to articulate their arguments, both within development and policy environments, and influencing changes to business and strategic planning in their organisations.

Life-long learning opportunities such as this give us the chance to address these missed opportunities from our own education and see the role that both business and human rights based approaches can have in strengthening the work we are already doing to support some of the most disadvantaged, marginalised and vulnerable people in our society, and to make us stronger, more sustainable organisations in the future.

If you are interested in the Masters in Citizenship and Human Rights programme you can find our more at www.scvo.org.uk/msc or contact Matt.tyrer@scvo.org.uk (tel 01463 251 727)
Matt Tyrer is a Development Officer for the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, (SCVO), and the Chair of ReBOOT, a computer recycling and reuse social enterprise based in Moray with environmental and community aims. All opinions expressed in this article are his own.

By Matt Tyrer, Development Officer, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO)

Issue 6

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